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Franz Kafka as a Hunger Artist

In: English and Literature

Submitted By areynolds3
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Through much of Franz Kafka’s writing, the reader can see how his personal experiences and viewpoints are clearly worked into his many stories. One of which stands out is his story A Hunger Artist. In this story Kafka speaks through the hunger artist of the alienation and isolation he feels in his own body, as well as the emptiness he feels as a result of the disconnected relationship he and his father share. Ironically this emptiness manifests itself quite literally at the end of Kafka’s life, when he dies as a result of tuberculosis of the larynx, which causes him to literally starve to death, just as the hunger artist in the story. It was said about his writing “the early manifestations of authentic originality were nurtured in solitary confinement, with his readiness to see the world through his own eyes.” (Pawel 160) This comes across clearly in A Hunger Artist as someone who is in a self-imposed solitary confinement seeking meaning to his life, much like the hunger artist being locked in his cage. Thus, Kafka uses A Hunger Artist to speak of himself and his experiences.
A Hunger Artist is a short story about a once popular spectacle staged for the entertainment of a pleasure-seeking public: the exhibition of a professional “hunger-artist” performing in a cage of straw, his stunt of fasting. The hunger artist spends his fasting performances, and therefore most of his life, in a cage, on display before a crowd of people. His spectators see him as a trickster and common circus-freak and therefore they expect him to cheat, to break his fast in secret. But fasting is his sole reason for existing, his life purpose. For him, fasting is the easiest thing he can do, but no one believes in him. Because the public distrusts him, he is guarded (usually by three men) and prevented from fasting beyond a forty-day period. When he is removed from his cage he collapses in a rage, not from hunger, but from having been cheated of the honor of fasting on and on and becoming “the greatest hunger-artist of all time.” (Kafka 715) Though emaciated almost to the point of death, he quickly recovers and after brief recuperation intervals performs again and again.
Professional fasting eventually goes into decline, as audiences develop a taste for newer, more exciting forms of entertainment. The hunger artist is too old to take up a new profession, so he attempts to ride out the trend against fasting in the hope that it reverses itself. He then joins the circus and becomes a sideshow. People visit his cage in the circus-tent, but only because it is next to the entrance of the menagerie of animals, which the spectators are fascinated by. All's changed, now no tally is kept of the number of fasting days achieved. There are no guards. “And so the hunger-artist just went on fasting as he had once dreamed of doing, and it was indeed no trouble for him to do so, as he had always predicted, but no one counted the days; no one, not even the hunger-artist himself, knew how great his achievement was, and his heart grew heavy.” (718)
So the world ends up robbing the hunger artist of his reward. Indifference replaces admiration, and he dies. The hunger artist, who spent his life trying to achieve spiritual satisfaction, is buried with the straw from his cage, and replaced by a panther. The panther wants for nothing. Though the panther is caged, it is so comfortable in its own skin that it projects an aura of freedom.
Kafka, on the other hand was not someone who was comfortable in his own skin. “The fact is that Kafka’s student years, roughly between the ages of eighteen and twenty five,…was a time…when he seemed determined to break down some of the walls of what he perceived as his prison…He wanted to be, not quite like everybody else…but enough like them to feel at ease in his own skin.” (Pawel 123)
Throughout his whole life, Kafka felt that his childhood had crippled him, reinforcing his belief of seeing himself as an outcast, living in a cage much like the hunger artist himself. Like the hunger artist, he too lived in a state of constant want for both food and recognition, as he longed for his father’s acceptance. From the very beginning of Kaka’s life, his family had been organized by, around, and for the benefit of his overbearing father. As a result of his father’s constant criticisms, Kafka began to criticize himself, as he felt crushed by his ever present burden of guilt, which he turned into self-hatred.
“One of the most significant influences on Kafka’s life and work was his domineering father. Kafka’s stories often contain themes drawn from the burden of his father’s tyranny in his home life, depicting settings of confinement as well as convoluted systems of punishment and other expressions of seemingly all powerful authority.” (Miline 100) He blames his father for having robbed him of his childhood, never giving him the attention he is starving for, and like the hunger artist, he spends his whole life seeking it. The most sustained account of Kafka’s childhood is seen by Kafka himself, contained in the fifty-page letter he wrote at the age of thirty six, to his father. In it, he summons up an incident which he obviously considered not only emblematic of relations with his father but of lasting significance in the evolution of his self-image:
“There is only one episode in the early years of which I have a direct memory. You may remember it, too. Once in the night I kept on whimpering for water, not, I am certain, because I was thirsty, but probably partly to be annoying, partly to amuse myself. After several vigorous threats had failed to have any effect, you took me out of bed, carried me out onto the pavlatche (balcony) and left me there alone for a while in my nightshirt, outside the shut door. I’m not going to say this was wrong---perhaps at that time there was really no other way of getting peace and quiet that night---but I mention it as typical of your methods of bringing up a child and their effect on me. I dare say I was quite obedient afterwards at that period, but it did me inner harm. What was for me a matter of course, that senseless asking for water, and the extraordinary terror of being carried outside were two things that I, my nature being what it was, could never properly connect with each other. Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the pavlatche, and that therefore I was such a mere nothing for him.” (Kafka 142-143) That Kafka, at the age of thirty-six, is still so clearly traumatized by this event from his early childhood, which, even so many years later he still clearly remembers, is very telling about the lasting damage it inflicted. The way he describes his own frustration at his inability to understand how his simple request of asking for water resulted in the terror of his extremely frightening father carrying him out of the room and locking him outside in the middle of the night, and the fact that he continued to suffer repeated nightmares from it throughout his adult life, gives evidence to how Kafka’s life experiences clearly influenced his writing. “A child’s energy is bound by the parameters of the mother and father. Existence, if it is perceived at all, is then felt as emptiness haunted by what could be. Because the personal life is not being lived, the individual tends to feel caged, victimized, no connected to any ongoing purpose.” (Woodman 204) The similarities between this particular childhood incident and the character of the hunger artist’s simple request to be allowed to fast longer and longer only to be denied and dragged out of his cage against his will, are striking.
Like the cage enclosing the hunger artist, Kafka’s own life feels like his prison. Both Kafka and the hunger artist are perpetually unhappy and feel alienated form society, so both are forced to enter their respective cages again and again, in an effort to find protection from those that don’t understand them.
Just as life had not offered the food the hunger artist felt he needed, so too did Kafka feel he could not accept what life offered. As a result his suffering continued to increase. “Kafka, for most of his life, suffered from recurrent depressions…he displayed all the classic symptoms of an overweening aggression turned inward: suicidal self-hatred, agonizing indecision, hypochondria, manipulative self-pity, insatiable demands for love beyond the hope of any satisfaction, and, in addition, chronic headaches and insomnia and digestive disturbances…but…to designate Kafka’s despair as a depression is not an explanation but merely a label for what is abundantly self-evident. …What made him unique was the way he alone was able to transform his struggles into an act of supreme creative fulfillment.” (Pawel 191)
The hunger artist also struggles. He struggles over powerful physical forces and urges, but he has set up those obstacles himself, which cheapens his accomplishment. His only triumph comes at his death. “‘Why can’t you help it?’ ‘Because,’ said the hunger artist, lifting his shriveled head a little, and puckering his lips as if for a kiss, he spoke right into the supervisor’s ear, so nothing would be missed, ‘because I couldn’t find the food I like. If I had found it, believe me, I shouldn’t have made any fuss and stuffed myself just like you and everyone else.’ These were his last words, but in his dying eyes there remained the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was still continuing to fast.” (Kafka 719)
Like the hunger artist’s refusal to leave the cage once the door has been opened, Kafka too, keeps himself locked in his cage. Kafka is the hunger artist. It is his cage within that leads him to disappear as an artist. “The prisoner pinning away for his freedom who, when at last the gate swings open, refuses to leave is far from a rare phenomenon…What kept him from living, he now knew, was what had kept him from dying. The full awareness of his situation may have overwhelmed him quite abruptly and precipitated his withdrawal into protective isolation.” (Pawel 193)
Again, like the hunger artist’s compulsion to fast, the irresistible compulsion for Kafka to write seemed to him part of a dark, utterly personal fate, and there is no doubt that much of the time he felt more driven than chosen. “Writing sustains me…But wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life? Which does not of course, mean that my life is any better when I don’t write. On the contrary, at such times it is far worse, wholly unbearable, and inevitably ends in madness.” (97) Philip Rahv describes him thus: “It is as the neurotic sufferer in Kafka and the artist in him locked hands and held on for dear life.” (Phillips 1553)
Like the hunger artist’s search for truth in the fasting itself, “The rigorous search for truth…had become Kafka’s all-encompassing goal.” (Pawel 147)
Towards the end of Kafka’s life, after suffering yet another debilitating depression, “he at last found the strength to fight with the only weapon at his disposal. At the end of February… he wrote to Klopstock: ‘In order to save myself…I have lately begun to write a little.’… A few months later, already in the midst of a creative writing phase, he was even more explicit: ‘The existence of the writer is truly dependent on his desk. If he wants to escape madness, he really should never leave his desk. He must cling to it by his teeth.’ The initial results of these driven efforts to burrow into his solitude were four brief but striking parables of alienation --- “First Sorrow,” “The Departure,” “Advocates,” and “A Hunger Artist.” (Pawel 420-421)
Of these four stories A Hunger Artist is one that most clearly reveals the thin line between his fiction and his self-analysis, “in all four stories Kafka is writing about himself as his father’s victim. Arguably he never wrote about anything else…Life had not offered the food he needed; he had not adapted to what it offered…Obviously the story is developed out of self-criticism, while images of caging, chains and imprisonment were recurrent.” (Hayman 272-273)
But A Hunger Artist also reflects his neurotic nature about food. As disciplined as Kafka was with his writing, he was equally disciplined in controlling his diet. Like the hunger artist’s devotion to the art of his starvation, throughout his life Kafka increasingly becomes more neurotic about controlling his diet.
“His first step, sensibly enough, was to eliminate from his diet anything he thought might disagree with him. But the list of forbidden items lengthened rapidly and soon began to encompass major food categories….There is an element of rising savagery in the way in which he progressed from the avoidance of certain foods to what amounted to a self-imposed starvation diet, rendered pathetically ironic by the fact that in the end the very nature of his final illness –tuberculosis of the larynx – made swallowing all but impossible, so that he quite literally starved to death” (Pawel 208-209)
At this point we see a huge resemblance of Kafka in A Hunger Artist. Because of the location of the illness in his throat, he was barely able to eat, drink, or even speak towards the end of his life. Although he had written A Hunger Artist before this stage of his illness had set in, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see how it would have been partly inspired by Kafka’s increasingly restricted diet, over the course of his worsening illness. In the end, he too, had great difficulty finding the food he liked. “Kafka, by then quite unable to eat, was wasting away, dying of starvation and immersed in the gallery proofs of A Hunger Artist. Fate lacked the subtle touch of Kafka’s art.” (445)
Kafka died on Tuesday, June 3rd 1924, after spending a lifetime trying to make up for what he had never known: acceptance. He was an outcast, and his story A Hunger Artist speaks directly to that acute longing. As David Foster Wallace points out in his commentary ‘Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness’ …“The etymological root of anorexia happens to be the Greek word for longing.” (Wallace 1579) Kafka spent his entire life struggling to satisfy that acute longing, and the stories that emerged, to a great degree, satisfied that longing for connection that all human beings share.
“In conclusion, then, we may sum up the paradoxical relationship of Kafka’s work to his life as follows: his fiction is not ‘about’ his life in any conventional sense, and yet it is a symbolic expression of his life to an unusually intimate and intense degree.” (Thorlby 17) Clearly Kafka’s life experiences, his attitude, knowledge and viewpoint on life illuminated his writing of the short story A Hunger Artist in many ways.


Charters, Ann. "The Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka." The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011. 1539-541. Print.

Charters, Ann. "Guided Tours of Time and Death by Jayne Anne Phillips." The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011. 1539-541. Print.

Charters, Ann. "Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed by David Foster Wallace.” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011. 1539-541. Print.

Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. Toronto: Collins, 1984. Print.

Miline, Mark Ira. "A Hunger Artist." Short Stories for Students Vol 7: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories. Vol. 7. United States of America: Gale Research, 1997. 100. Print.

Thorlby, Anthony. "Life and Work." Kafka, a Study. N.p.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972. 17. Print.

Kafka, Franz. "Letter to His Father." Dearest Father;. New York: Schocken, 1954. 142-43. Print.

Hayman, Ronald. "Matliary." Kafka: A Biography. New York: Oxford UP, 1982. 272-73. Print.

Woodman, Marion. "The Dress of Stars." Leaving My Father's House: A Journey to Conscious Femininity. Boston: Shambhala, 1992. 204. Print.…...

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...FRANZO KAFKOS ROMANAS PROCESAS Francas Kafka (1883 m. liepos 3 d. – 1924 m. birželio 3 d.). Procesas 1925 išleistas,bet nebaigtas(8skyrius)? Procesas - 1. įvykio ar reiškinio eiga, vyksmas 2. teis. bylos svarstymo teisme eiga, teismo byla Ekspresionizmas (pranc. expressionisme, iš expression 'išreiškimas, išraiškingumas, išraiška') – XX a. pirmųjų 3 dešimtmečių avangardistinė Vakarų Europos dailės, literatūros, muzikos, architektūros ir teatro srovė, kuriai būdinga atviras, pabrėžtas autoriaus pasaulėjautos, emocijų, vizijų reiškimas, anarchistinės, pacifistinės ir antimiesčioniškos idėjos, apibendrinti, hiperbolizuoti, dažnai groteskiški vaizdai. Siurrealizmas (pr. sur – virš, réalisme – tikrovės, realybės) – XX a. III–V dešimt. kultūrinis, intelektinis, artistinis, meninis judėjimas. Kilo iš dadaizmo, kuris klestėjo Pirmojo pasaulinio karo metais. Dadaistai pirmieji atkreipė dėmesį į žmogaus pasąmonę kaip įkvėpimo šaltinį. Siurrealizmas prasidėjo su Andrė Bretono siurrealizmo manifesto paskelbimu 1924 m. 1. Jozefo K. kaltė. Per savo 30 gimtadienį atsibudęs ryte bankininkas Jozefas K. yra aplankomas dviejų vyrų, sargybinių (Vilemas ir Francas) ir suimamas. Manoma, kad Jozefas yra apšmeižtas, nes nėra padaręs nieko blogo. Lygiai po metų, per jo 31 gimtadienį , Jozefas vėl yra aplankomas dviejų vyrų, šie nusiveža Jozefą už miesto į akmenų skaldyklą ir čia jį nužudo. Romanas apima metų ciklą, kai buvo nagrinėjama Jozefo K. byla, Jozefo kova su nematomu teismu ir...

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Kafka MéTamorphose

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...underneath around Gregor it was dark. He pushed himself slowly toward the door, still groping awkwardly with his feelers, which he now learned to value for the first time, to check what was happening there. His left side seemed one single long unpleasantly stretched scar, and he really had to hobble on his two rows of legs. In addition, one small leg had been seriously wounded in the course of the morning incident—it was almost a miracle that only one had been hurt—and dragged lifelessly behind. By the door he first noticed what had really lured him there: it was the smell of something to eat. For a bowl stood there, filled with sweetened milk, in which swam tiny pieces of white bread. He almost laughed with joy, for he had an even greater hunger than in the morning, and he immediately dipped his head almost up to and over his eyes down into the milk. But he soon drew it back again in disappointment, not just because it was difficult for him to eat on account of his delicate left side—he could eat only if his entire panting body worked in a coordinated way—but also because the milk, which otherwise was his favourite drink and which his sister had certainly placed there for that reason, did not appeal to him at all. He turned away from the bowl almost with aversion and crept back into the middle of the room. In the living room, as Gregor saw through the crack in the door, the gas was lit, but where, on other occasions at this time of day, his father was accustomed to read......

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